The Book of Love

It’s kind of a running tradition that every year for my beloved’s birthday, I come up with some hand-made way to express how joyful it makes me that he was born. One year, I made him one of these little babies (that was a huge hit, by the way, and not horribly difficult to make). Another year, I took a box of his favorite tea and wrapped each tea bag with a slip of paper that had a reason why he’s awesome on it and a sentiment of endearment.

This year I wrote him a book.

It sounds pretty extreme when you put it that way, but think of this: every person in the world needs a creative outlet. I love to write. At this stage of my dissertation process, I do a LOT more research than writing, and creative writing is an entirely different beast than academic writing. I needed a place to put all of the pent-up writer’s emotion that wasn’t going into my diss. That, and I wanted to play with the novel-writing functions/capabilities of Scrivener (which, when I started writing this book, was a new toy for me).

You might also say “where on earth did you, oh woman who works seven jobs, find the time to do a thing like write a novel!?”. The truth is that it happened in snatches. I set myself word targets and sat down to write one chapter a night (two when I was being REALLY productive). I took breaks when it got too overwhelming, and I definitely didn’t edit it as toughly as I could have. On the whole, it did eat into my social time; but not as much as you might think. Part of it was discipline; I knew that I had to write at a certain pace in order to hit my goal; so I just did. Part of it was careful outlining; I came up with the story I wanted to tell in about five minutes as I was going to sleep one night. Then I took that outline and pulled it apart into chapters so that I always knew exactly where I was going with things at any given time. This helped when I got stuck in the occasional rut because I could tell myself “you’re not stuck; you know exactly where you need to be… just knuckle under and write!”

The point of the exercise was simple: to write my companion a story that he would enjoy reading, and that I would enjoy producing. And to play with my new toy software (which, by the way, is still awesome and I highly recommend to anyone producing any writing of any length but particularly long pieces or things that require a lot of moving parts to keep going).

But I had an ulterior motive as well. I wanted to prove to myself that I could, on a time-table, produce a novel-length manuscript that was worth the paper it was printed on. It was a test, you see. A way to prove to myself that I was in fact capable of producing that many words and slapping them coherently on the page. And you know what? I am. I know I am because I did. And that’s just one less piece of ammo that my demons can use against me when I’m having bad dissertation-writing days.

Yup.  There she is.  My book.

Yup. There she is. My book.  That I wrote.  And had professionally printed.  Because I can write books.

I had the book printed on Harvard’s Espresso book machine (her name is Paige Gutenberg, by the way). It was an awesome experience to layout my own text (so not as hard as it may seem; the final product even has fancy drop-caps at the beginning of every chapter, different alternate page numbering, and header texts which varies by chapter and is distinct on odd and even pages), PDF everything, send it, proof it, re-edit, then send again. The nice lady who runs the Espresso book press even agreed to meet me at a time when we could watch her print the final product so that we could see the machine in action. It’s totally awesome to think that we live in a future where I can manipulate a few lights and dots on a computer screen, then have that create an object of importance with which one can interact about fifteen minutes later.

So take that, dissertation demons. I wrote a book. And I’ll write another one, too. As soon as I get all of my research ducks in a row. Ugh. Guess I better go read something now…

The Parking Lot Rule

As you can imagine, I see a lot of theatre.

As a reviewer, PhD Candidate, fight director, and general denizen of the theatre community here in Boston, it’s important that I remain active and supportive on the theatre scene. It’s also important that I stay professional whenever I’m out at the theatre. For those who have read my reviews, you will know that I see theatre that’s good, theatre that’s not so good, and pretty much everything in between. While the casual observer perhaps isn’t concerned about being overheard at intermission yapping with their neighbor about this actor or that directing choice, I very much am. When I’m at the theatre, I represent several different brands that have backed me and my professional thespian skills: Tufts University, New England Theatre Geek, and my own brand as an FD (to name a few). The last thing I want to do is compromise any of these brands by letting a half-thought sentiment be overheard by the wrong person. Theatre is art. Art is personal. We theatre people take our theatre-babies very seriously.

....this is a photo of the time that I managed to improvise a song in rhyme while playing the ukelele for no reason other than I sure had things to say about the experience in the parking lot (good things.  All good things).

….this is a photo of the time that I managed to improvise a song in rhyme while playing the ukelele for no reason other than I sure had things to say about the experience in the parking lot (good things. All good things).

So I have developed a solution to the inevitable theatrical eavesdropping which might potentially get me in trouble. I call it “The Parking Lot Rule”.

This is a rule that I impart to all of my theatrical companions as they enter the theatre with me. It’s actually very simple: no matter how bad a play is, we don’t talk about it until we hit the parking lot of the building. While inside the theatre, we can praise the show’s good parts, but criticism waits until we are outside.

This accomplishes several things:

1) It curtails the issues I discuss above.

2) It forces you to think about criticism before spouting it in the heat of the moment. Theatre is visceral; humanity has known that since the Greeks; often times it can provoke a visceral reaction which bypasses your critical thinky muscles. To put something down in a harsh way without first examining your criticism is not fair to the artwork, and the parking lot rule helps you take a moment to step back and figure out why it is that you feel a certain way about something before you hurt anyone’s feelings.

3) It lets the play settle in before you make a snap judgment. Sometimes, you really need to see a piece in its entirety before you can determine your feelings on it; the parking lot rule gives you a bit of breathing room in which to make up your mind before you begin to discuss your thoughts. It also allows the “small stuff” to fall away. Sometimes things will catch your eye in the moment which, in the long run, mean nothing; the parking lot rule allows those details to fall into perspective before you render judgment.

4) It allows the theatre to remain a “sacred” space. Acting comes with a lot of woo, and much of it I don’t (personally) subscribe to; but I do believe this: the theatre space is a temple. When a company is performing in a given place, that’s their home for the duration of their run (sometimes longer depending upon circumstances of the play). You wouldn’t criticize somebody’s cooking while sitting on their couch; you shouldn’t criticize somebody’s acting while sitting in their theatre. The parking lot rule allots a certain amount of respect to the art which I believe is necessary for healthy audience/performer interaction.

Whether you’re an experienced theatre-goer or just getting to know the theatre, I highly recommend that you give the parking lot rule a shot. In my opinion, it’s the first step towards learning to think critically about theatre. It has certainly served me well over the years, and I hope that it does the same for you!

Back in the Saddle

Being back home from the big dig means a lot of things:

1)   I am back at my desk! I love my desk. I missed my desk. I can’t believe how quickly I became accustomed to my current work set-up, but I simply wouldn’t want it any other way and I so dearly missed having it. I missed the sunlight; I missed my giant window; I missed the comfy chair; I missed my dual monitor and raised laptop setup; I missed my external keyboard and mouse; I missed my giant external hard drive; and I missed not having to move everything around on a whim. So glad to be

In the course of my unpacking, this happened.  Because for me this is normal.

In the course of my unpacking, this happened. Because for me this is normal.

back sitting in one location when I’m working!

2)   Man oh man do I have so many e-mails to answer. I’m about caught up on all the things now; but it was dicey there for a few days. It’s incredible the amount of backlog you can build up, even when working triage between archive trips.

 3)   I might have gone a little theatre-nutty and accepted about a half dozen reviews in my first two days being back. This week I’ll be reviewing one show; next week I’ll be reviewing a different show and seeing a third show just for the sake of seeing theater… and I have a few more on the horizon coming up. I’m so happy that it’s theatre season again; and I’m so stoked to be back in the reviewers’ saddle (though I will admit, it was nice to see a show or two without a notebook in my hand while I was in New York!).

4)   I have so many pre-semester errands to accomplish. Some of them are amusing. Some of them are not. Luckily I timed my return such that I’d have a few precious days on campus before the hoards descend in multitudes. Picking up a parking pass for the semester is SO much easier when you can sneak in and out without anyone else being there. By the time the undergrads arrive back on campus, lines at campus security wind up being out the door and around the block (no joke) and I’m simply too ridiculously busy to spend two hours waiting for the privilege to hand them my money. Also: when campus is empty, I can use the quad for whip practice. Not so much once everyone returns from summer break.

5)   I have once more managed to fill this semester with exciting things. I’m TAing one class in the department and teaching a second. I am teaching my stage combat class again to the kids at Charlestown, and teaching my OSHER class again to my delightful continuing adult ed. students. I’m also fight directing at least two projects (with more on the horizon), finishing edits on a chapter for publication, continuing my work as an independent contract writer, and continuing my work with the Folger. Oh and writing a dissertation. And that’s just what I’m doing on the work front… My personal projects and leisure activities continue at a similar pace.

6)   Now I have to set order to the INSANE amount of stuff I documented over the

Of course, being back in Mass does mean I'm missing this view....

Of course, being back in Mass does mean I’m missing this view….

course of five weeks at some of the biggest archives in the country. I’m making progress, and the trip definitely opened my eyes to a lot of things that I really needed to consider over the course of this dissertation process. Also: it was fun to paw through archival material (if a bit frustrating sometimes).

7)   Back to running here means back to hill training. New York is very flat…. My neighborhood not so much. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I guess?

 Back to the grind!

Adventures in Archives

In the last week I have managed to:

Find items listed in the card catalogue that it took three archivists and a reference librarian to figure out what these items might be, and that the library probably doesn’t have what I’m looking for anymore (though they obviously did at one point) but if these items were still, somehow, in the collection how I could fill out a call slip to maybe see what I wanted to see.

2014-07-22 10.41.32

Shot I took on my way to NY Municipal yesterday. Ain’t she a beaut’?

Fill out the call slip in the way the librarian told me to.  It did not get me my broadside, but it did get me a collection of clippings that were mildly useful so I’ll call that particular adventure a wash.

Find an item listed in the card catalogue which, when delivered to the desk, was in such fragile condition that I was not allowed to take the item from the desk but rather had to make a special appointment with a special archivist so that she could turn pages for me.

Find a series of items that was collected in so many different forms that the archivists had to bring me no less than three book cradles and two sets of book weights to figure out how I could view them safely without damaging or putting stress on the items.  These items, by the by, were included in a series of circus ephemera which also included all kinds of broadsides, newspaper clippings, advertisements, and crumbling papers arrayed in scrapbooks in what I’m certain made sense at the time they were put together but now, one hundred and fifty years later, is the most convoluted organization possible.

Find an envelope containing locks of hair and adoring notes from Edwin Booth’s groupies.  Apparently fan-girling is not a modern invention and, in the nineteenth century, was way creepier than it is today.

Procure and subsequently lose approximately fifteen pencils.

Increase my average daily physical activity by approximately 200%.  This is not hyperbole; my step tracker counted.

Make and cancel and re-make so many plans that I’m hoping my calendar remembers where and when I’m supposed to be at a given time because I certainly don’t.

Attain and attend appointments at all of my target archives and sift through so much material that I’m going to be reeling for a while.

And now, they’ve paged my next batch.  Catch you later!

Type A Problems

One of the best things that I do for myself is take notes.

Okay, this might seem self-explanatory, but frequent and persistent application of the basics can really get you through research’s tough problems.

Of course I take notes when I’m reading. How can you read something that you hope to retain and not take notes? In fact, I often read things so quickly that I will forget I have read them unless my notes are copious, well-organized, and well-labeled. Since the dissertation is… you know… a BIG GIANT RESEARCH PROJECT REQUIRING A LOT OF RESEARCH, I’ve extended this one step further.

I’ve started taking notes on my notes.

Yup, that’s right, I’ve gone one more giant leap down the type-A rabbit hole. In science, being able to reproduce your results is extremely important. As such, scientists copiously document (and even publish) their research processes. This is one thing that I think we in the humanities can attempt to duplicate. The research process needs to be something that you can map, at least for yourself. I need to know where I have been in order to sustain where I am going and not just trace and re-trace the same old habitrails day in and day out.

So I started a research journal. I have started to record which databases I query on a given day, the search terms I use, and hyperlink any findings. I note what was useful, what perhaps was less so, and any special considerations I will have to make in the future. At the end of the day, I leave myself ideas about where I want to go next. This makes re-immersing in deep research much easier; I no longer have to spend time looking for my train of thought because it’s right there on paper. In the long run, I feel that this will also prevent gigantic duplications in effort. “I forget, did I check this particular obscure thing? Oh well, better check it again just to be sure.” In essence, I am mapping for myself the territory that I trod in an effort to help myself remember exactly what’s going into this giant project.

In other news, I leave for New York in six days and counting. This time next week, I will have already had my first series of meeting in my five-week journey to enlightenment.

I’m still trying to figure out what to pack, but at least 95% of my archive appointments are taken care of….

Into the Fire… Kinda

So the verdict? I’m a beast and I love challenging physical obstacles (especially amongst supportive and lovely people). The Spartan Sprint was an incredible experience, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. In fact, I’m now looking into longer races, other 5Ks, and thinking about how far I really want to go with this. I’m reasonably sure that a full marathon is too much for me, but there may be a half in my future. Way in my future. Like a few years in my future. I’m all registered to go for the Zombie Run Black Ops in Boston this year (nighttime 5K/obstacle course complete with zombies who try to eat you), and I’ll be on the prowl for some fun-looking 10Ks in my near future.

I’ve been an avid user of the Zombies, Run! App and 5K trainer (which helped get me into shape for Spartan). It’s a great way to keep yourself engaged and occupied while you’re out for a run. I had tried C25K programs before and all of them lacked a bit of zazzle for me; but this one is just the right combination of stuff to do and encouragement. And, really, who doesn’t like outrunning zombies?

So now that I’ve hurtled the obstacles of June, it’s time to go into deep preparation mode for my research trip. This is particularly difficult when I’m trying to keep my library checkouts at a minimum (since I’ve moved further away from campus than I used to be, and most check-outs would come due while I’m away, it just seems like a good idea to try and go fully digital or from-my-own library until my return from New York).

apparently kissing at the finish line is a Spartan tradition.

apparently kissing at the finish line is a Spartan tradition; we were happy to oblige!

When I have library books, I am able to keep a very real and tangible grasp of my workload. Since I can physically manipulate stacks of books to represent what I am doing, have done, and will do soon, I can create a great set of cues for myself and my kinesthetic learner ways. I’ve managed to come up with systems involving the physical manipulation of books that keep me engaged with my research, and from feeling like I’m lost or don’t know what to do next (or even what needs to be done). Since the move, I’ve been completely disoriented from this method as well as from my usual work patterns. My office situation is completely changed. My desk set-up is completely different. My books aren’t even rearranged so that I can find things if I need them (at the moment, that’s not as big of a deal as it might seem since I’m trying to go digital for 90% of the work I need to do in the short-term).

So it’s a new challenge to figure out how to work in a way that doesn’t involve my book-stacks. Hopefully, it’s one that I’ll resolve before I leave for New York…

Just keep plugging; happy Monday!

White Lies

As the weather gets nicer, it’s becoming more and more difficult to focus on the work I need to do rather than go outside and play all the time. This means that my running has definitely gotten some attention, but that I’ve had to get clever with how I get myself to my desk in the morning.

I was once given the advice that, whenever you’re feeling down about your work (and hey, it happens!), you should “eat dessert first”. Find what it is about the topic, the job, whatever it is you’re doing that drew you there in the first place. Some of what we do as academics is administrative red tape rigmarole, some of it is downright unpleasant, but there’s always going to be that shining kernel of things you love.

This week, it’s been about using that kernel to trick myself to my desk.

Due to the generosity of my home institution, I’ve been given the gift of research this summer. I’m enabled and empowered to visit New York for a full month to do dissertation research (which is vital because, you know, my dissertation is kind of all about New York). I’m so EXTREMELY excited for my trip for so many reasons (not the least of which being all the food from home that I miss so much up here in Boston). This means that I have to take some time before my trip to figure out what I’m actually going to look at at each of the various archives that I will be visiting.

Here's a picture of a T-Rex that I found in a bar a couple weeks ago.  For no reason really just that I had nothing else to put here.

Here’s a picture of a T-Rex that I found in a bar a couple weeks ago. For no reason really just that I had nothing else to put here.

Which basically means online shopping. I’ve spent no small amount of time this week (and will spend some more in weeks to come) browsing the catalogues of my target institutions for items that might have information which would help my project. Essentially, I get to sift through the holdings of these CRAZY LARGE PLACES in order to try and determine what small subset will be worth my while to look at.

This process is more complicated than you might think. The trouble is that library science, while certainly further along than it was when my grandparents were working on their dissertations (while I have used a card catalogue, it’s thankfully only a small subset of a specific corner of my research which requires such medieval measures), is still an imperfect science. But it’s not the field’s fault really; I mean how do you accurately catalogue boxes upon boxes of material in a way that is intuitive to the general researcher? Generally, the answer involves a complex series of sub-headings, and documents known as “finding aids” (slightly more detailed descriptions of what’s in a box than the collection’s title, but when I say “slightly” I often mean just that… most finding aids that come across my desk are one-line descriptions of date, persons involved (if it’s a letter then usually it’ll be the to/from), and maybe some brief description of places involved). These “finding aids” can be quite old and are generally in PDF form (and not even OCR PDF) which means that, rather than use a computer to look for the word/words you might need to key you in to items on this twelve-page list which might be useful, you have to sift through them using your own two eyes.

If this sounds like a special breed of torture, then you’re not entirely wrong. After about hour five of this, I tend to be too tired to continue without fear of missing something important. But the cool part is that you get little bursts of inspiration/encouragement along the way. Remember, you’re looking through these lists to find something related to your research. That means that the gems you find here will be the things that are the backbone of your project; one document could change the way we look at history! Every time I find something in one of these aids that might be useful to me, I get (at least a little bit) excited. What I’m looking at now will, when it’s in front of me, help to formulate the big ideas that I’m currently wrestling with and provide the documentation to support my arguments.

Also, handling stuff that’s easily five times your age never gets old.

So that’s been my method of tricking myself into productivity this week. Let’s see how long it holds up!

Slowing it Down

Being busy is a really weird thing, and the busier you are the weirder it gets.

I’ve been so busy for so long that since the semester is winding down and I’m no longer running at a break-neck pace, I’m feeling like I am not doing enough. I know, right? Because working three jobs (instead of seven) while writing a dissertation, blogging, and having a social life is TOTALLY not enough and I’m definitely a slacker.

In moments like this, I contemplate starting another project. Then I contemplate why it is that I’m so intent on dying young due to stress-related heart complications.

There’s a huge sense of guilt which comes with being essentially self-employed. Some things will test the boundaries of what you thought you could do. Studying for my comprehensive exam last summer, for instance, was one such task. I learned exactly how many books I could read in a day and still retain the proffered information. After that, even when comps were over, if I wasn’t reading five to eight books in a single day and watching two documentaries as a cool-down, then clearly I wasn’t working at full capacity.

It’s the same with the end of the semester. I get up every morning at 8 and drag myself to my desk after making a cup of coffee. There, I stay (unless I have to teach during the day) until at least 7:00 PM. At that point, I often leave the house to fight direct or review a show. And on days when I don’t do that (and I’m not taking a rare social break), I have been known to work until 9:00 or 10:00 at night because there are things that just have to be done. Essentially, I’m used to twelve hour plus days (I think my record is something crazy like sixteen hours, but on a typical week I average more like thirteen). I’m used to every single moment of my time being filled with some work-related thing of one variety or another.

So when it’s not, I feel like I might be doing something wrong. Like I’m not doing enough. Never mind that “normal” people work eight hour days and maybe burning the candle at

rare glamour shot; public library on my day off last weekend

rare glamour shot; public library on my day off last weekend

both ends isn’t the most sustainable work habit. It takes me a while to acclimate to a “normal” workload because I’m always so busy. When I drop by my desk time to a “regular” schedule, I feel like I don’t get as much done as I should.

I’m led to believe that this is a common thing in academia. It stems mostly from the fact that our projects are almost never completed (and when they are, never all at the same time). We can always always be working on something. There will indefinitely be another draft to write, another book to read, or another set of research to plow through. So when there’s work to be done and time in your schedule, why aren’t you working?

Part of it also stems from the constant drive to produce. With the job market being the way it is, there’s always a need to do more faster than the person behind, in front, or next to you. That one extra published article on your CV might make a different somewhere to someone at some time (especially at the early stages of your career).

Yet another part of it stems from the perfectionist tendencies which produce viable academics. Let’s face it; you don’t go for a PhD unless you’re incredibly driven to succeed and have a track record of near-perfection. If you’ve made it this far, chances are you’re used to being amongst the “smartest” people in the room no matter where you stood.* Now, you’re in a department full of people like you. That’s a really tough situation to be in and can result in no small amount of struggle. When the cream floats to the top,** some of that cream is inevitably going to feel like milk again. Or, to put it as my mother says it, “not every doctor graduates top of the class”. You worked hard to get here, now you have to work twice as hard to stay where you’re used to being: at the top.

So the semester slow-down, while a perfectly healthy form of work curbing, doesn’t always feel right. I try to remind myself that it’s okay to average out those long days with a couple of “short” ones, but that only goes so far.

So I’ll be here trying my hardest to sit on my hands at 5:00 if anyone needs me. I can’t guarantee success, but I can certainly at least try!


*I put “smartest” in quotation marks because I want to differentiate a socially-accepted view of book smart from street wise, kinesthetic smarts, or emotional maturity that can make a brilliant person feel overlooked in a conventional classroom setting. Books and grades aren’t a sure-fire way to measure intelligence.

**Again, not sure this is a metaphor I’m entirely comfortable with but I’m having trouble coming up with an alternative.

The Write Stuff

I’m a slow writer and I need many drafts to create something that I feel is worthwhile.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following this blog for some time. I’ve explicated my writing process on several occasions, and over the years while the materials have changed (I RARELY do literal cut and paste jobs anymore), the methods certainly haven’t.

This might come as a surprise to anyone who realizes that I’m a blogger and puts two and two together. Blogging is a sphere which, of necessity, requires you to develop content quickly and efficiently. So how can a blogger be an admittedly “slow writer”?

Now let’s start here: I’m not talking George R.R. Martin slow. In fact, I think that guy ought to be ashamed of himself. My beloved did the math at one point and determined that Martin produces something like 250 viable words a day. WHAT? If I wrote that slowly, they would boot me from my program and make me wear a sign of shame around my neck to tell the world that I was an embarrassment to the ivory tower and writers everywhere. When I say “slow”, I mean more that I need many many drafts to forge and re-forge a piece of academic writing in order to temper it and make it stronger. I’m up to something ridiculous like fifteen drafts of one piece I’m working on right now (don’t worry, I’m about to hit the “send” button on that one, so before you get lecturey about over-drafting just stop and take stock of the fact that I’ve been working on it for a year and a half now because it’s been interspersed with other projects).

Academic writing is completely different from any other style of writing. When I blog, for example, I generally require one hour from inception to publication of a post. This includes

This morning's drafting session

This morning’s drafting session

research. When I write creatively, I produce a preliminary draft of content very quickly and go back over it a few times before I feel like others can lay eyes on it (more like three drafts than ten). I can produce 2,500 words of first draft creative fiction in about an hour. More disposable content, like facebook and twitter updates, are just banged out in about point five seconds.

Each of these styles of writing is important to one’s development as a writer. I believe that writing is an under-appreciated and under-developed aspect of the academic work. While we’re expected to generate writing at pivotal points in our career, there’s very little support (unless you create it yourself) for exercising and bettering your writing. So many academics hold their writing process to close to the chest that it’s often difficult to trouble-shoot your own process. I have taken to asking mentors and peers, at conferences or other socially appropriate forums, what their writing process is like just to get new ideas about things I could do better. I’ve learned a few tricks (some of them more palatable than others; there is no way in any universe that I’ll be waking up at 6AM to fit in three hours of just writing before I go about the rest of my day but I’m glad that it works for some people), and I’ve mostly learned this: everyone’s process is different. Much like a workout regime, some basic rules apply universally: repetition is a must, sustainability is key, and knowing when to push yourself and/or rest will help you be more productive in the long run. Other than that, just do it. Find whatever works for you, and get going. Do it today, do it tomorrow, do it the day after. Keep writing; the only way to fail here is by inaction.

One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that once I get to the drafting stage, I can roll home without much problem. Drafting time is my favorite point in the writing process. This is the point where I get to take my colored pens and hone my work until it’s shiny and better than it was before. There’s something so satisfying about the instant gratification of taking a piece of writing and making it be better. There’s also an immediate visual cue that red-penning a page gives you; “LOOK HOW MUCH I CHANGED! THIS IS HOW MUCH BETTER IT IS NOW!” In a field that functions so basically on intangible items, this kind of tangible and visible change is a welcome breathe of fresh air and something that I, kinesthetic learner that I am, desperately need to feel satisfied.

Also, when I draft, I can take my work for walks. It keeps me focused to have a stack of papers in front of me and no internet to distract. I take my draft, go to a local coffee shop, buy a cuppa, and stay until I’m done. This breaks my work up into logical and manageable chunks and keeps me from mid-day burnout. Sometimes even a little sunshine and fresh air (on my way to/from wherever I’m going for the day, for example) can help to give me a little boost when I need it most.

So keep on keeping on, brave writers! Venture boldly forth and practice, practice, practice.

Alright, Let’s Play

With Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations right around the corner (the known world tends to celebrate on April 23rd though we can only guess at the precise date; this year Shakespeare turns 450!), it’s natural to find a resurgence of Shakespeare-related ephemera on the internet.  This year, a friend of mine unearthed the following buzzfeed article which, in the proud tradition of internet take-downs (and, since I’m a professional paladin of the Bard), I’m going to take a moment to address.

The article’s author, Krystie Lee Yandoll, relates her traumatic childhood experiences with Shakespeare which lead to her adult disdain for the playwright.  Well, Krystie, let’s get real for a few minutes.

I can understand hating Hamlet in sixth grade and, in fact, I wonder at the wisdom of the teacher who presented it to you at that young tender age.  While I have every firm belief in the intellectual capacity of kids, with very few exceptions forced middle school readings of Shakespeare can be nothing but a horrible memory.  I apologize on behalf of Shakespeare professionals everywhere that this was your first experience with the Bard.

But your continued adherence to a blind hatred is nothing less than juvenile.  You go on to explain why reading Taming of the Shrew in high school didn’t appeal to you.  You say, “sure, it’s reflective of the time period it was written in — racial, gender, and sexual equality hadn’t yet reached 16th century England — but that doesn’t make me any more inclined to relish in what I interpret to be Shakespeare’s inherent sexism. If I don’t like reading modern stories and authors that perpetuate sexist ideals about gender, love, and marriage, why should I make an exception for Shakespeare?”  First of all, let’s get something straight; you cannot project your contemporary feminist ideals anachronistically onto a playwright whose worldview had no place for them.  You concede this, but continue on to violate your own conceit.  Stick to your preliminary guns on this one; your first instinct is the right one.

Second, who says that Taming of the Shrew perpetuates sexist ideals?  I would argue that that play portrays men as nothing less than cruel inhuman monsters.  Petruchio is the worst conception of a man when first we meet him and grows only slightly better by the end of the play.  Your determination to hate everything about this has blinded you to the facts: instead of looking at the spark notes, you should have read deeper.  Alright, perhaps you weren’t capable of this in high school, but you’re an adult now.  You can go underneath the text to project different theoretical lenses onto a piece and use your critical thinking skills to uncover readings that were previously not available to you.  But you didn’t do that; and by not doing that, you continue to spout a narrow point of view on the matter which isn’t flattering to your mental capacities.  Unpacking this information to satisfy your modern bias could lead to something more; don’t just give up and cry that this is horrible.

You continue on to claim: “The dominant narrative is, more often than not, determined by society’s elite. I’d rather not put an old, rich, white man from regal Britain and his antiquated ideologies about society on a pedestal.”

There’s a couple problems with this statement.  First and foremost: Shakespeare was neither old nor rich at the time he began his career.  Though he eventually became both (… “old” is still debatable since he died at the age of 52), you can’t project the future onto the past.

Secondly, you’re completely ignoring the history of Shakespeare in the United States (and, for that matter, England).  Shakespeare has always been a people’s playwright; from the groundlings who saw the shows during the seventeenth century, through to the groundlings who see them today.  Nineteenth century America was essentially a hotbed of popular culture Shakespeare.  He was a staple in vaudeville, hugely popular amongst minstrel acts, and stories run rampant about cowboys reciting Macbeth and forty niners walking hours to get to a play at night.  It wasn’t society’s elite that made Shakespeare into The Bard; it was common man (especially here in America).

Third, I wouldn’t say that there’s anything antiquated about Shakespeare “ideologies about society”; we still deal with tyrants (in government and our personal lives), we still deal with warring families (though perhaps not as bad as the Lear or Gloucester families), we still deal with social norms about marriage (when was the last time you saw a debate online about same-sex marriage?  And when was the last time you saw a progressively-cast version of Midsummer?)  Take a closer look and come back to argue when you have some hard evidence.  I’ll be happy to entertain your notions when you actually know what you’re talking about.

You reveal that “every time someone brings up Macbeth or The Tempest, I feel like I have a knot in my stomach because all I ever wanted in the world is to be taken seriously as a writer and lover of literature, and I never thought that could happen if I admitted to my disdain for Shakespeare.”  Frankly, it’s not your disdain for Shakespeare that makes me not take you seriously as a writer; it’s your disdain for the facts and critical thinking.  If this were a well-argued piece, I would have applauded you.  Instead, all I can see is a narrow-minded rant about why your scaring childhood experiences have prevented you from widening your focus to attempt to understand a cultural phenomenon.

You don’t have to like Shakespeare; but if you’re going to argue about him you do have to understand him.